Some Catholics who were aghast at Leo Varadkar’s recent remarks about the Catholic priesthood, and how he’d like to see women ordained, cried that it was inconsistent with the modern idea of the separation of Church and state. While we can recognise the error in their reasoning, tradition tells us that the Church and state should ideally unite in the goal to save souls. We can also understand that most Catholics are confused and misled by modern teaching and the confusing times in which we live.
The modern idea of the separation of the Church from the civil state dates from the period of the so-called Enlightenment. It started with ideas of the primacy of individual conscience but very often it was played out by individual states and kingdoms taking control of the Church in their respective countries. Catholic monarchs eyed their protestant neighbours with a certain envy; they desired what they had, a church that would serve the interests of certain powerful men rather than serve God or save souls. In Germany, Johann Nikolaus von Hontheim (1701–90), the father of Febronianism and a priest, went so far as to advocate for the state takeover of the Church and the deposition of faithful clergy.
To control the Church, such men had to take control of the priesthood and we see it first in Austria during the 1780s where Josephinist policies sought state control of seminaries so that future priests would be encouraged to defer to the superiority of the state. In 1790, the revolutionary French government with the ‘Civil Constitution of the Clergy’ lawlikewise tried to control the Church by controlling the clergy including, of course, determining who could become a priest.
Through all this, the Church remained constant in its teaching about the relationship between Church and state. It was not until the years leading up to the Second Vatican Council that moves were afoot to change this teaching. This culminated in the document Dignitatis humanaethat purported to lay down rules on how the Church relates to secular states. Instead, it declared the surrender of the Church’s rights. Since then, as we can see in Ireland, politicians – especially ones claiming to be Catholic – have become increasingly bold in their attacks on the Church and the natural law. We recently saw a government minister, Josepha Madigan, who led the campaign for abortion cause scandal by conducting a ‘Communion service’ in the absence of a priest. Even the idea of a ‘Communion service’ is shocking in a country that until the 1970s provided, per capita, more missionaries, than any other country, to every continent in the world except Antarctica.
It is hard to know why the Taoiseach and ministers would issue such a challenge to the Church after two-thirds of voters voted to remove the right to life of the unborn. It is hard not to connect it with the upcoming visit of Pope Francis and to see Varadkar, Madigan, et al. as laying down a challenge to the Pope and the Church. Whatever it is, it shows their ignorance of history. Josephism and the ‘Civil Constitution of the Clergy’ are now consigned to the dustbin of history, and so too will Modernism.